Wonderful message “Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Temptation” by Pastor Toni Carmer.
Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Temptation, Luke 4:1-13
First United Methodist Church, March 18, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
This morning on this 5th Sunday of Lent, we're talking about the Gift of Temptation, which seems at first glance to be no more of a gift than any of the other "blessings" we've considered over these past few weeks.
We can say that resisting temptation builds our character, makes us stronger, and defines us as people of integrity. That's true, and we can celebrate and give thanks that we have resisted and held fast against those things that might have been hurtful and harmful to us and others, had we surrendered to them. Yet so often, our choices aren't between good and evil. When was the last time you were truly tempted to do something sinister or evil? Tempted to eat too much chocolate or to change "information sharing" into gossip doesn't count. Those might not be good, either (well, chocolate is), but that's not the kind of temptation we're talking about today. Maybe you've even thought about throwing your boss, or your least favorite teacher or me out the window a time or two, but you really wouldn't do it. You really weren't tempted. More likely, the way you've been tempted is choosing between two potential goods. Do I work overtime again tonight so the family has money to spend on a vacation, or do I go home and actually see the kids before they go to bed for the first time this week? Do I keep doing what I've been doing or do I follow that dream I've had for years that's filled with so many unknowns?
There's no evil in any of those choices, it's a good versus a good. Or a good versus a better.
So today we're going to look at temptation from a bit of a different angle…from another perspective. Perhaps some of what has tempted us warrants a second look.
The scripture we're looking at this morning is shared briefly in the Gospel of Mark, and then is given more detail in both Matthew and Luke, of when Jesus was tempted by the devil. Jesus goes into the wilderness after having been baptized in the River Jordan by John. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him. The Spirit then leads him into the wilderness where he spends 40 days discerning his call, and preparing his heart and soul for what God wants him to do. He fasts those 40 days, not eating anything. And so he is famished when the devil comes to him, tempting him for the first time. "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."
It would be good, wouldn't it, to be able to turn a rock into bread? The temptation would not be limited to feeding himself then and there, but think of all the hungry people in the world. There were people hungry then, there are people hungry now. An easy solution to a real problem. So far, it seems there are no strings attached. Yet Jesus knows better: "One does not live by bread alone."
An easy answer isn't always the best solution.
Next, the devil takes Jesus up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. "You can have authority over all these, because I can give that to anyone I please."
This is an amazing offer. The first temptation meant feeding the hungry. This one would mean that Jesus could make a difference in history by passing laws and using resources in the best possible way. Organize the world for peace, for justice. That ability would be amazing!
Then the devil delivers the price for this glory: "Worship me, and it will all be yours."
Whoa, okay. It's good that the devil mentioned that particular stipulation. As you and I are faced with temptation to do something new or different, we don't always know the rest of the story. We can't always see ALL of the expectations and consequences. We have our best guess, even when we do our research. But the devil names his price and makes it clear. "Worship me and it's yours."
Jesus is also clear in his response. He's not looking for power. What he'll do will rock some political structures, but that's not the primary purpose of his call. He knows this. "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.'"
But the devil isn't done. He takes Jesus to Jerusalem and places him at the peak of the temple. "Okay, if you're the Son of God, throw yourself down from here." Then the devil quotes scripture, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. They'll bear you up so that you won't even scrape your foot on a stone."
That would be an impressive thing for people to see, wouldn't it? For someone to fall or jump from a high place in slow motion, and land gently on their feet. Maybe you could see the angels around him, maybe not. Makes no difference; that sight could be convincing for those who doubt. Or—thinking of the offer in a slightly different way, in the context of our approaching Holy Week—you and I know what's ahead… As we read scripture, it seems that Jesus knows what's ahead, as well. Is the devil telling him that giving up his life is unnecessary? There's another way? A way that doesn't include the particularly unpleasant detail of a cross?
Jesus responds to the temptation: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." With this, the devil has offered his best and so departs until an "opportune" time. In the Gospel of Matthew's text we're told that "angels came and attended him."
I want you to look closely at the painting on the screen. It's called "The Second Temptation" by English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake. Blake's painting depicts a pious-looking man standing to the left of Jesus, and as far as we're concerned, if we didn't know the name of the painting, we might think that the man is a Hebrew prophet appearing to Jesus, someone like Moses or Elijah up on the Mount of Transfiguration. The man is pointing up toward the heavens with one hand and down to the world's cities with the other. Jesus is standing calmly next to him, pointing in the same 2 directions. The man doesn't have horns or a pitchfork and he looks like a decent sort of guy: nothing scary about him.
On the surface it seems that Jesus is being offered some pretty good things from a decent guy. He's offered the possibility of making a difference in the world…accepting any one of them would bring worthwhile contributions to the world.
But Jesus says no to each one of them. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus will feed the hungry, he will change the political equation, and he will perform miracles. But these aren't the things to which Jesus has been called to devote all of his time and energy. They're too small; his calling is much higher. Saying yes to these temptations would ultimately enslave him and those who follow him to a master whose purposes were quite different from the one he (and we) have chosen to serve.
I'm thinking of the temptations that you and I face in our lives. Not so much the good versus the evil; that's pretty clear. But the good versus the good (or the better).
As you consider your own temptations, here are a couple of questions to have in mind, based on today's scripture:
Have you been able to find, or to make a safe space to listen to the voice of God? To listen to the voice of your soul? So that you know the place where God is calling you? Forty days would be nice to set aside to listen for where God might be leading you, but of course that's not always possible. But perhaps, over the course of your life you have heard God's voice and you've been able to discern the place where God is calling you. You know what you're good at, you know your gifts, and those things that bring you joy—and those things that don't. Maybe you've felt guilty about re-focusing your energies in those places, and not doing what doesn't fit who you are, so you've kept doing what doesn't fit you. But consider this possibility: Maybe you're doing the "wrong" good; and the good you've been doing is someone else's to do, but not yours… (Sorry, I'm not talking about household chores: you may not be called to balance the checkbook, to do laundry or to clean bathrooms, but somebody's got to do them. So don't use today's message as an excuse to not deal with those little necessities in life ).
Are you called to do good? Or are you called to do better?
Do you have a mission that calls out to you? A yearning that you haven't been able to shake, and yet you haven't responded? That you've been tempted to do but haven't? Perhaps it's time to listen. Perhaps it's time to allow the Spirit to move you, to make you into a "new creation" so you can be who God made you to be, so you can experience the joy of following your right path.
Are you called to do good? Or are you called to do better?
How might you receive the gift of temptation? How might this gift bring blessing?